Teenagers love to spend more and more time with people their own age – their peers. This therefore becomes one of the larger issues for parents to deal with as it can affect the parenting efforts in either a positive or negative manner. While we often say peer pressure, the influence of peers need not be looked at only in a condemning sort of way. Pressure when it exists, does have to be addressed, no matter where it emanates from - homework, parental expectations or peers!
When children are young, parents manage their social lives. Decisions about which birthday parties they attend, what classes they go to etc. are made and supervised by the parents. As the child grows and begins to assert his/her preferences/independence in these choices, parents too become more conscious of their peer group and associated effects.
Peer influence can motivate children to enhance their own abilities and explore new things like no other group can. Peer approval or disapproval often becomes a backdrop for some very critical choices. In the safety of similar problems & struggles, feelings & emotions, children learn to deal with and accept new things in life. It allows children to pursue interests and get support for activities no one else may have time and patience for.
As parents, our responsibility is not limited to being alert to the kind of friends and peer group that our child has. There needs to be just as much a focus on helping the child find the right balance of fitting in and simultaneously asserting and developing his/her own unique personality and style. The peer group in early teens can become the training ground of how an individual learns to deal with relationships and managing expectations, of self and others!
Communication is key to encouraging positive peer relationships in children and also ensuring that the child does not get so carried away with ‘belonging’ that his own intrinsic nature & personality does not get opportunity to exert and flower.
- First of all, make efforts to know your children’s friends. On an average the child’s choice of peer group reflects his/her own attitude and interests. One interested in music will begin forming relationships and become affected by people who share a similar interest. It is possible that some children will have more than a single group to be a part of. Some friends with whom to jam, some others with whom to study!
- Encourage discussions …the sharing kinds and the reflective kinds. While children love to share things about what they do if you are genuinely interested, get them involved also in discussing larger issues that promote reflective thinking. Of course the subject has to be of the child’s interest. You could link discussion of a new car design with the larger issues of global warming.
- Watch out for erratic behavior and tell tale signs. Bad language, sliding performance, aggressive body language, unexplained lack of interest in food, mood swings etc. can often be correlated to pressure on the child from the current peer group to participate in activities not promoted or supported by family values. Offer more reassurance at such times, so that the child feels comfortable confiding in you. If the overall environment has been of a happy and open household, a child will not immediately lapse into behavioural problems owing to bad company or outside pressure, there will be some internal conflict and efforts to resist, indications of which need to be grasped by the parent.
- Do not be too vociferous in criticizing someone in your child’s group. Attacking friends is tantamount to attacking Self. Instead have an open discussion about characteristics, tendencies and habits you consider unhealthy. Let the child in the course of the discussion herself bring up her friend’s problems. If she chooses not to, don’t force it. If she does, offer to discuss the subject with the friend along with your child. Be willing and open to involve the other child’s parent. If the relationship is really deeply entrenched, your child will appreciate your effort. If not she will distance herself from the problem child over time.
- Do not accept peer pressure as a valid cause to do or not do something. Remember, for the child to accept this from you, you too need to have not adopted the approach of ‘because I told you so’. A child’s confidence in his own decision making power has to be cultivated and nurtured by the parents. Only when we have allowed them to decide for themselves can we disapprove of their act of doing something just because others told them to do so. A child is very quick to spot double standards.
- Don’t be dismissive of the child’s angst, hurt or rejection experienced through the peer group. If the child has taken a stand on a subject in the group, assist your child in building arguments in support of their view. Even if you think the issue is trivial, don’t say so outright. If you think they are wasting their time on trivial issues, remember the issue may be trivial, but the process of working through it is what growing up is all about. It is a skill they have to learn, so be patient.
- If you are convinced there is a real problem like substance abuse or misbehaviour or disproportionate aggression in the group that your child is becoming a part of, immediately do something to divert the child into something that removes them from there physically. Sure there are practical problems to it as there are work schedules etc. to adhere to, but remember if the child ended up with one of these behavioural problems, the resultant chaos would be much greater.
- Invest time and resources in some occasional socializing with parents of your children’s peers. Even if you have nothing else in common, you have your children to talk about. Plus it can always become an opportunity to make new friends. You may learn something about your own child from something her friend said to her mother!
- Peers and their influence are going to stay in your child’s life. Parents need to accept it and make the best of it. The knowledge of being loved and valued at home is the greatest safeguard a child can have against negative peer influences.